Flowering from the rubble of decades of conflict in Iraq are a group of artists who, despite limited materials and few national galleries are creating art and increasingly, a market for it. On May 19, the Art16 fair in London heralds their entry into the international art market with an exhibition focusing on 12 artists from the country.
Until recently, good-quality paints and brushes were hard to come by and extremely expensive in Iraq, and some artists have even resorted to using the cardboard boxes they slept under or old tyres to make work. But with the help of the Ruya Foundation, which is sponsoring this show, many have been able to sell their work, enriching their practice by using a wider range of materials including those for painting, photography, ceramics, textile, installation and video works.
The pieces on show here range from those by more established artists such as Ahmad Abdul Razzaq, in his 60s, to emerging ones, such as Dilan Abdin, born in 1982. Abdul Razzaq paints surrealist, almost post-apocalyptic landscapes that merge fantastical dragons and serpents with human body parts (£650-£1,000, such as second picture), while Abdin’s work on display, Homeland (from £2,000), takes the form of a book, providing a personal response to the history of Iraq, particularly the Kurdish experience, via cutouts, printmaking, transparency and burnt pages.
There is a particular emphasis on photography in this show, including works by Jamal Penjweny from his Saddam is Here series of photographs 2009-10 (prices from £3,500), in which Iraqi subjects in everyday surroundings are accompanied by life-size photographs of Saddam Hussein’s face. Ayman Al Amiri, meanwhile, a 21-year-old Baghdad-based photographer, takes black-and-white photographs of prostitutes in the city, viewed in a frank and surprisingly playful way in their domestic settings (prices start at £700). Also on display are works (including first picture) by Julie Adnan, whose multimedia project You May Go (2010-) includes photographic portraits of subjects holding up touristic images of places they wish to visit or migrate to in contrast to the landscape of Iraq that they actually inhabit (prices from £1,000).
In textural contrast, Qasim Hamza, a well-known ceramicist in Baghdad, makes simple, decorative plates and pots (£1,250-£2,000) that gesture towards a long history of craftsmanship in the otherwise unstable and unpredictable setting of his home city.
“The focus of our presentation at Art16 is to showcase Iraqi artists who are frequently rendered invisible by geographical, political or cultural isolation, on an international platform,” says Tamara Chalabi, chair and co-founder of the Ruya Foundation. “Many of our artists will be engaging with the international art market for the first time so this is the perfect moment to discover their work.”